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Davis, California

Friday, February 23, 2024

What’s lost in automation?


Legal battle over self-driving technology and Uber stories

The Uber ride can be an unusual modern location for friendship in the technological age. Finding oneself in close contact with a new person can yield both surprisingly positive and negative results. What about getting in a car with no driver, but rather a program running autonomously? This is the direction in which Uber is going, although automated Ubers are not yet sailing the streets of Davis. The company has tested the technology on the streets of Pittsburgh, Penn. but it has not yet been released en masse.

The impacts of self-driving technology on the public are also under common scrutiny. Automation will obviously have huge impacts on those who drive for Uber and possibly Lyft. Though Uber contends that it will direct previously employed drivers toward services like door-to-door flu shots through the company, the UC Davis community has concerns and words of encouragement of their own. Third-year psychology major Lexi Singh was unsure about the technology.

“I don’t know how I feel about self driving cars in general,” Singh said. “You lose an important social aspect because you don’t have a person that you’re interacting with necessarily. But that would also be just really interesting being in a car that’s just automatically driving. That would be actually pretty exciting to be in a self-driving car, but it would also be scary. I think I don’t really understand the technology very much to say what my opinion on self driving cars would be.”

Many people likely don’t know the specifics of self-driving programming. Infamous Uber driver Karaoke Caddy Man, or Stephen Brumfield, shared a story from his many hours on Davis’ roads. Brumfield was turning on Sycamore Lane when the light turned green, but the truck in the turn lane next to him didn’t go. The truck blocked his view of the crosswalk, so he waited too. It turned out to be a woman, pushing a stroller and pulling a toddler along behind her.

“I don’t know if their technology can handle that,” Brumfield said. “If this technology sees a green light, is it just gonna go? I decided to slow down early […] had I just kept going at 20 miles an hour by the time the technology would have seen that stroller, it would have been too late.”

Annika Lin, a third-year psychology major, isn’t so concerned about the technology itself, but rather what defines a successful Uber ride. For Lin, it’s getting to the destination.

“I’m not really afraid of it, I think it could be good if it was an automated thing because sometimes I get in an Uber and then they’ll refuse to take me because they’re like ‘oh I didn’t know it was going to be that far,’” Lin said. “I just got into an Uber and now I have to call a new one. So I think this automated thing would be cool because they can’t say no and you’re not really burdening anyone so you don’t have to tip them. It’s not like I really talk to my Uber anyway.”

How valuable is the five-minute Uber conversation, really? There’s certainly a split experience between receiving an effective service and having a social experience. Uber is one moment in the day when a stranger can become a friend or an acquaintance and the world draws in close. Second-year mechanical engineering major Ayan Siddiq knows this experience intimately.

“There was one time I was with a lady […] she was telling me about her daughter and how [she] was taking her to the zoo later in the day,” Siddiq said. “I was talking about how I don’t really like the concept of zoos. And then she starts saying how in a way, humans are also held captive, like in society. We were kind of just going back and forth about that, it was a very interesting conversation.”

Siddiq can see the benefits of automation regardless of concerns about technology and socialization.

“In general, they’d be able to put more cars out if it’s automated,” Siddiq said. “I don’t think the interaction between the rider and the driver is necessary, but it is fun to have. So I think it could be beneficial.”

Although some riders have a social experience on their way to their location, the job could also be a social one for some drivers. First-year English major Lili Eichler and first-year genetics major Esme Hassell-Thean shed light on a unique example.

“I’ve heard a lot of Uber drivers say that Uber is kind of therapy for them, just meeting new people,” Eichler said. “Like there’s this one Uber driver that we had, and he had Parkinson’s. He was the nicest guy. He said that Uber basically just appeased a lot of his symptoms.”

Eichler and Hassell-Thean each recalled notable moments shared with Uber drivers, one culminating in the realization that the driver worked on campus and knew exactly where to take them. However, Hassell-Thean ultimately articulated pros potentially outweighing the cons.

“I’m fairly neutral on the idea because the social bit can be nice, but it also carries the risk of having somebody that’s slightly odd,” Hassell-Thean said. “Although I think for the drivers, Uber is a good thing for students to do to make money because it’s a flexible schedule. But as a consumer I don’t think it matters.”

The Karaoke Caddy Man feels more strongly about the social significance of jobs that are quickly becoming automated. Despite having financial stakes in Uber’s evolution, Blumfield reflected on personal experience.

My daughter works at McDonald’s, or she used to,” Blumfield said. “They decided to put a kiosk in there for you to go and order your food. So what happened to the smiling, and everything else that comes along with it? So we’re losing that. And obviously with McDonald’s it’s been lost years ago because nobody likes the job because they’re not getting paid enough.”

Blumfield has been an Uber driver for just over two years. He has installed a cordless karaoke system in his car and operates under the pseudonym ‘Karaoke Caddy Man’ on Instagram and Snapchat where he connects with his past guests.

“I’ve met so many people doing Uber and Lyft,” Blumfield said. “I mean, they’re all on my Instagram I’m watching their lives continue to grow. I mean tons of people. I keep up with them, and we still talk. All those memories would have just been a blank ride.”

The Karaoke Caddy Man has actually been sought out by people who have yet to ride in his car and sing with him. He recounted a recent positive experience while working and waiting to be called, although he cautioned that riders don’t understand how difficult it is to make a profit when he’s forced to idle while they meet the car.

“Just a couple of weeks ago I was was sitting in front of Blondies and I was just sitting in the car, you know, rapping and singing like I normally do and I just hear all this screaming ‘ahhhh’ and I’m like ‘what the heck is going on’ and they open up the door and they’re like ‘are you the Karaoke Caddy Man? […] oh my god we’ve been waiting the whole year to get in your car!’”

Whether or not Uber will try to automate Blumfield is something he will wait and see to find out.

“At some point I guess it’s going to happen and you know I don’t know if I’ll still be driving at that time but if I am, hopefully I’ll continue to […] still have passengers in Davis that will call me,” Blumfield said.



Written by: Stella Sappington — features@theaggie.org


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